I attended the Board meeting of Harlow Renaissance Ltd. last night, of which I am Vice Chairman.

HRL was incorporated in July 2006 to drive forward the regeneration and growth process in Harlow. It has four key members

  • Harlow District Council
  • Essex County Council
  • East of England Development Agency
  • Homes & Communities Agency

Its three key aims are

Delivery: to deliver Growth Area Fund and other projects delegated to us to quality, time and budget.
Collaboration: to act as a catalyst for consensus-building and co-operation, holding the ring and facilitating the dialogue between our partners and other key stakeholders.
Boldness: to import big thinking and innovation into all our debates, complementing the creativity of our partners and acting as agents provocateurs for the radical and long-term transformation of Harlow – not for the sake of it, but with the sole purpose of enabling a sustainable and cohesive community which plays its full role in the sub-region and Essex as a whole.

So as you can see it has a hefty remit.

Last night there was a presentation by Harlow North Joint Venture an amalgam of Land Securities and Places for People that want to deliver new homes to the north of Harlow.

Now I have always been in favour of this growth, with some serious caveats that I will return to later, and this has put me out of step with a lot of Conservatives in the East of England. I have supported the growth because Harlow is very constrained by its boundaries, and has very little land of its own to grow on, yet has the thirst and desire to grow.

As a new town building more houses is something that is and has been part of everyday life to those of us who grew up in Harlow, and do so desperately need those houses to allow third and now even fourth generation Harlow Children to stay living in the town. We are also all acutely aware that Harlow, being a grand old 62 this year has bits that are tiring mostly at the same time, and so that is why Regeneration is my councils’ top priority. Regeneration that can be assisted by growth.

Simples?

Well not quite because the most obvious place to build the new housing is on a swath of land to the north of the town, that doesn’t belong to the town, in fact its not even in the same county… Its East Hertfordshire, and those in the hamlets and villages that Harlow might overtake are not at all happy with the plan.

But I have always caveatted my support for the building of Harlow North with the following:

  • The Boundaries must move so that Harlow gets the Regenerative benefit of the building.
  • The infrastructure to support Harlow North must arrive before or at the same time as the development.
  • Any development must offer a one town solution and not two separate communities.

And really that last one is the clincher. It benefits Harlow not one jot if all that happens is a few thousand houses are built in East Herts with no reference to one cohesive community, if the links across the river between the two areas are not solved and if no effort is made to integrate the two developments.

Sadly the latter is all I saw from the presentation that HRL received. I questioned the speaker with my concerns and in their answer not once was the issue of connectivity mentioned and I was given no real reassurance about the amalgamation of two communities.

For me, who has spent the last six years supporting the idea of such a development it was a disheartening evening.

I hope that the issues I raised will be thought on at length by the people at Harlow North Joint Venture because if all that happens is a load of new houses appear in East Herts, when we all know that the residents there will use the schools, doctors, hospital, shopping centres, restaurants and leisure facilities in Harlow with no demonstrable benefit to the town then the people of Harlow will, rightly, be very unhappy.

The Leader of Hertforshire County Council, one of my own party colleagues once described the town I love so much as “a pimple on the backside of Hertfordshire”

Unless the people at Harlow North Joint Venture get real about creating a proper community, East Hertfordshire could well end up being the pimple on the backside of Harlow!

Next week is the “Annual Council meeting” – the first meeting of the council after the local elections.

At the ACM we elect the two ceremonial roles Chairman and Vice Chairman of the council and the business roles Leader and Deputy Leader, we also decide which committees that we are going to have and appoint to them and appoint their Chairmen and vice Chairmen. Its all rather procedural and boring at times.

BUT I have been wondering a lot about the formation of the council and who goes where to best serve the town, given the mass of skills the Conservative administration in Harlow has at its disposal.

I have also been thinking about the Scrutiny role, and considering that I don’t believe an administration should scrutinise itself, I am fairly sure that we should not only let the opposition Chair that committee, as is tradition in Harlow, but that they should have the vice chairman position on it too.

I really would like to see Harlow Council operating in a more streamlined decision making process so that good decisions can be made faster and cheaper.

A year ago when there were some test purchases made in Harlow, over 30% of the tests were failed – that means that about 1 in 3 shops tested sold alcohol to under 18’s.

Now any councillor will tell you that lots of their mailbag/email inbox of complaints is based around rowdy young people on street corners and associated anti social behaviour. Often it appears as though alcohol is involved. So this is an issue that concerns us all very much.

In that last year Harlow’s Community Alcohol Partnership has been established, bringing together the experts from Harlow Council’s Safety and Licensing Team and the Council’s Community Safety Team working with both the Police and Essex County Council’s Trading Standards supported by the Councillors on Harlow Councils Licensing Committee under the leadership of Cllr Nick Churchill (pictured) and Cllr Sarah Dangerfield the Chairman and Vice Chairman.

The results?

Alcohol sales to underage drinkers are falling in Harlow according to the latest test purchasing figures. The rate of test purchase failure has plummeted like a stone from over 30% to 11% in the last year, which is now better than the county wide target of 15%.

This is a real success for collaborative working between the County and District Council’s and the Police, and my thanks for all the hard work goes to all those involved.

But the hard work does not stop there…..

For the coming year the team will be trying to ensure that the 11% does not slip, continuing to educate and warn retailers and now to target those who illegally buy alcohol for those underage.

Yesterday I had the chance to meet, along with the Chairman of Harlow Council Tony Hall, the Harlow Chamber of Commerce, in the form of Sean Quinney and Ian Hudson their Chairman and Vice Chairman.

The Harlow Chamber of Commerce went through a bit of a bad patch a few years ago, with a few people leaving at the same time, but under the leadership of these chaps they seem to be doing very well.

We talked about the networking events that they host, the new members that they were targeting and the networking work they were doing.

It was good to tell them about the Council’s changing view of business. Since taking over the Council the Conservative Administration have started promoting business in the District a lot more, including business for the first time in the Council’s corporate plan.

I have invited the Chamber to my next business breakfast and look forward to finding other ways to help and work with them in future.

This morning Mrs J (the other Councillor Johnson) our Daughter and I went to St Paul’s Church for Harlow’s first ever Civic Service.

The Civic Service was arranged by Harlow’s Conservative Chairman Tony Hall who was also responsible for suggesting that we appoint the first Chaplain to the Council last year.

It was a lovely service, attended by lots of people who are involved in the civic life of the town, and a great chance to showcase something good about Harlow to the rest of the county, who sent representatives in the form of many Mayors and Chairmen. Lord Petre, the Lord Lieutenant of Essex was also in attendance, welcomed by both the Chairman and the Vice Chairman of the Council.

There were readings and thoughts from Tony, Robert Halfon the Conservative candidate for Harlow, the Council’s Chief Executive and the Labour MP – who snuck out part way through the service (I’m sure he had some important Government work to do on a Sunday afternoon) and a former MP for the town who is the Chairman of Harlow’s Civic Society.

The congregation were also in rather good voice for the Hymns, and the National Anthem at the end of the Service.

The whole congregation were all then invited back to the Civic Centre for light refreshments by the Chairman.

There were only two things wrong with the morning, the first, something that irritated me – I sat behind Stan Newens, the former MP for the town, an ardent socialist who I don’t get on with at the best of times. To give you an idea of his outlook on the world, he wrote a book praising Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his exploits in Romania. Anyway at the national anthem, Stan visibly shuddered and clamped his mouth firmly shut. I am sure it was only coincidence that the entire row behind him sang with even more gusto.

The second thing, which annoyed me, but really should annoy everyone in Harlow, is that there was not a single member of the opposition in the congregation; and just so I am not being biased with the evidence, the majority of the Conservative group were in attendance.

Now I know Councillors are busy people (seconded by Mrs J!) and I know that not everyone can make everything, but not to have any members of the opposition, either from the nine Liberals or the five labour members, is frankly disgusting.